Tristan und Isolde

Jiří Bĕlohlávek
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
1/6 August 2007
Glyndebourne Opera House Lewes
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Tristan Robert Gambill
Isolde Nina Stemme
Brangäne Katarina Karnéus
Kurwenal Bo Skovhus
König Marke René Pape
Melot Stephen Gadd
Ein junger Seemann Timothy Robinson
Ein Hirt Timothy Robinson
Steuermann Richard Mosley-Evans
Stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Set designer Roland Aeschlimann
TV director Thomas Grimm
Mostly Opera

Nikolaus Lehnhoff´s production of Tristan and Isolde, seen for the first time in Glyndebourne 2003 and revived 2007, is both beautiful and aesthetic. A (semi)-abstract staging, it is set on and around a semicircular womb-like set of rings on a backdrop of changing colours within the blue-white-red color spectre on which the characters move slowly around.

In theory, an excellent backdrop for a meditative approach aiming to expose the inner roots of this work. However, I was left with an impression of a static piece as opposed to a flowing and dynamic one and the concept provided me with no insights into the characters motivations or actions. Dynamic interaction or exploration into the motivations of the characters clearly is not high on Lehnhoff´s agenda. Compared what Patrice Chéreau may achieve with the piece, one cannot help feeling disappointed with Lehnhoff.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme made her debut as Isolde when this production was new in 2003 to major international acclaim. And she is indeed a fine Isolde, both warmly sung and finely characterized, both vocally and dramatically. However, a shrill quick vibrato mares the upper mid-range of her voice, becoming increasingly disturbing under pressure, which prevents me from fully enjoying her interpretation. And though a fine actress, I miss a certain capacity to go over the edge. Nevertheless, Nina Stemme sings the part well and is vastly superior to 99,9% of the Isoldes on the circuit today, that is : Everyone except Waltraud Meier. Something you unfortunately cannot say of Robert Gambill, who simply disappoints as Tristan, both vocally and dramatically, even without expecting anything like a Melchior-level performance.

The real highlights are René Pape´s marvellous King Marke followed by Bo Skovhus´ fine Kurwenal, who also succeeds in appearing alive in this production as opposed most of the other protagonists, René Pape excepted. Katerina Karneus made a fine Brangäne as well, with a firm and round voice.

And then the magnificent playinh from the London Philharmonic Orchestra superbly conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. Rarely have I heard such inspired and magnetic orchestra playing in this repertoire, especially from a non-Germanic orchestra. I am embarrassed to admit to my limited knowledge of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Jiří Bělohlávek made the music flow, had attention to detail without being tedious and succeeded in creating the long lines, making the piece come alive.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Nina Stemme: 4
Robert Gambill: 2
René Pape: 5
Bo Skovhus: 4-5
Katerina Karneus: 4

Lehnhoff´s production: 4

Jiri Belohlavek´s conducting: 4

Overall impression: 4

Two overriding judgments struck me as I watched and listened to this gripping Glyndebourne production: firstly, this is not only the finest Tristan on DVD but easily among the finest in any medium, from the distant past to the present; secondly, I kept wanting to say that Nina Stemme was stealing the show, but the other singers were so convincing I couldn’t in all fairness make that assertion. And so many other aspects of the “show” were so consistently superb that no one person could stand out. Everything works brilliantly here, from Bĕlohlávek’s incisive conducting, where tempos always seem perfectly chosen, to the brilliant lighting effects, which draw out visual details from the barren but effective sets (or shall I say, set?) of Roland Aeschlmann.

A word about the set… The whole opera takes place on a circular and semi-circular structure, which possibly represents an egg, the source of life. Freudians would see it as female genitalia, I suppose. In any event, its shape and symbolism work well with this profound opera. Only the busy lighting effects change the view, the atmosphere – and what we see is always imaginative, always powerfully effective.

As suggested above, the singers are uniformly excellent, with Stemme the most convincing Isolde I’ve heard. Her dramatic skills and sense for nuance seem unerring throughout. Katarina Karnéus is a fine Brangäne even if she is underpowered in a few places in the first act. Robert Gambill’s Tristan is also excellent, as is René Pape’s King Marke. The playing by the London Philharmonic is accurate and fully committed: I was especially taken by the solo work of the English horn player in the third act, where the “ancient” melody is delivered so hauntingly, so memorably.

The Opus Arte sound reproduction is vivid and powerful throughout and the camera work is excellent. Without doubt, this must be counted among the finest opera DVDs ever issued. It is an essential recording for Wagnerians, and should be taken under consideration by anyone serious about opera. Highest recommendations!

Robert Cummings

One might not think to look to Jiri Belohlavek, the gentlemanly but rather placid Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for a ravishing performance of Tristan und Isolde. I couldn’t help but wonder: would he be able to do justice to Wagner’s psycho-erotic masterpiece?

On the basis of this new DVD recording of the piece from the Glyndebourne Festival in August 2007, the answer is a resounding yes and I can’t think of a more grippingly-paced rendition of this opera on DVD. What steals it is the orchestral sound that Belohlavek draws from the London Philharmonic. Right from the start it’s obvious that the conductor has focussed the musicians on the tone colours they produce: the strings’ vibrato in the Prelude is finely co-ordinated and there’s no doubt of Belohlavek’s wishes regarding tempo and accent. The opera simply flies by, which is not something one can often say of Tristan performances; and as darkness falls on the ill-fated lovers, so too does the orchestral timbre become more sombre and heavy. Whilst Daniel Barenboim’s conducting of the 1983 Bayreuth production (available on Deutsche Grammophon DVD) remains definitive for some, I find a greater fluidity about Belohlavek’s interpretation. It helps that the sound quality is far superior in this Opus Arte release compared with the false ‘surround sound’ on DG; and I also prefer the fact that the Glyndebourne production was recorded live, whereas at least part of the Barenboim performance was dubbed due to the vocal demands of the opera.

However, I’m less of a fan of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Glyndebourne production, which is perfectly inoffensive but says relatively little about the piece. Directors seem not to know how to treat this work, either opting for a crazy postmodern approach which makes nonsense of the story or going for a literal representation of the plot that does nothing to probe the psychological tensions of, to take the most obvious example, the forbidden love of Tristan and Isolde. Lehnhoff treads a line between these approaches, setting the story in a twisting vortex of steps, at the back of which is a contrastingly-lit opening to accentuate the epiphany of various characters. In other words, there is no attempt to represent the ship, garden or castle, which is reasonable enough; Lehnhoff sees this acting space as both a ‘womb’ (representing love and sex) and a ‘cage’ (signifying the illicitness of the relationship), also describing it as the human ‘soul’, which is what the opera is about in his opinion. Having made this gesture, however, the singers tend to act in a fairly naturalistic way, though this is all to the viewer’s benefit on the small screen: we can ignore the set because we can’t see it very often. However, I’m less impressed than other critics were about Robin Carter’s lighting. While it’s true that he casts the descent into night with an eerie dimness, I find the lack of contrasting colour in this production a serious letdown to the father of synaesthesia (the perception of colour in music). This problem also lies with Roland Aeschlimann’s monochrome sets. On the other hand there is something very assured about the acting in this performance, a result no doubt of Glyndebourne’s extensive rehearsal periods, and there’s none of the clichéd self-conscious ‘operatic’ delivery from any of the singers.

Tristan from GlyndebourneHeading the cast as an ideal Isolde is Swedish soprano Nina Stemme (who has recently withdrawn from Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden). A more completely satisfying performance of the role could not be imagined. She has the voice for it, strong from top to bottom; she has the stamina for it, giving the final scene as much energy as her first appearance; and perhaps most importantly, she understands Isolde and her dilemmas. Whilst there is plenty of detail given to individual words and phrases, the quality I admire the most is the simplicity with which she delivers so much of the text. The Liebestod is a key example: she rises from the back of the stage and socks the music to the audience with uncomplicated resignation. For once, it seems that the fuss made about a star artist is all justified.

I heard bad things of Robert Gambill’s Tristan, but while it may be the case that he is flattered by the DVD medium, in all honesty I was both moved and impressed by his performance. While Ben Heppner would be more vocally lavish, Gambill is by no means an inadequate singer, and when he shows strain in the third act it’s all to the enhancement of the drama (though I could do without the beads of sweat dripping off his and the other singers’ faces being captured in such minute intensity). I really believed in this pair of lovers and Gambill deserves his fair share of the credit.

René Pape is predictably captivating as King Marke, a generous performance that puts Covent Garden’s apparent neglect of him to shame; Bo Skovhus is a sensitive Kurwenal and Katarina Karneus is sympathetic and multi-faceted as Brangäne, though not quite the equal of Hanna Schwarz on the Barenboim recording. Praise is also due to Stephen Gadd’s Melot, Timothy Robinson’s confident Sailor/Shepherd and outstanding singing from the Glyndebourne Chorus. While it has its shortcomings, this is a reliable Tristan and one well worth revisiting.

Dominic McHugh

This Opus Arte DVD captures Glyndebourne’s 2007 revival of “Tristan und Isolde”, which was the Opera Festival’s first Wagner production when originally staged in 2003. It had been the aim of the festival’s founder, John Christie, to stage Wagner at Glyndebourne, but the musical preferences of Audrey Mildmay, Christie’s wife, and the small size of the original theatre meant that Mozart was preferred when performances commenced in 1934. It wasn’t until the opening of the 1,200-seat theatre in 1994 that Wagner productions became viable, and Nikolaus Lehnhoff was invited to produce ‘Tristan’.

Wagner – Tristan Und Isolde [2007] Lehnhoff has adopted a minimalist approach in the style of the Wieland Wagner productions of the 1950s. Lehnhoff writes that the settings of the ship, garden and castle are ciphers that do not need visual representation. Instead, set designer Roland Aeschlimann has provided Lehnhoff with a large elliptical vortex receding into the distance (curiously reminiscent of the 1960s’ science-fiction series “The Time Tunnel”), which Lehnhoff describes as “womb and cage simultaneously, enclosing the lovers and holding them captive”. The different moods of the opera are evoked through lighting: dim blue for most of Act One, luminous blue during the ‘Love Duet’ of Act Two, white at the beginning of Act Three. The effect is often beautiful, although the frequent close-ups of the singers’ faces obscures some of the effects that the lighting director must have intended. The medieval costumes, although not inappropriate in style, are very unflattering to the actors. Robert Gambill in particular is ill-served by his helmet in Act One, which obscures his nose, and by an unflattering brown wig in Act Two. The characters’ movements are generally well managed, although there is a curious lack of physical interaction between Tristan and Isolde themselves, who often sign straight to the audience rather than to each other. There are also some imaginative touches, including the series of coloured phials that Brangäne holds up when she discusses the magic potions in Act One.

Jiří Bĕlohlávek draws some exceptionally beautiful playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra; tempos are steady and balances are always appropriate. However, tutti passages are generally more notable for their refined textures than for their passion and there is little sense of accumulating tension across the longer span. The ‘Love Duet’ in Act Two seems observed from afar rather than burning with excitement (and which suffers a cut, which removes some 12 minutes of Wagner’s most impassioned music, commencing with Tristan’s “Dem Tage!” and ending at the point where Isolde sings “Doch es rächte sich”). The metaphysical aspect of Wagner’s music is also rather low-key. On the plus side, however, the choral singing of the sailors in Act One is outstanding, and I’ve never heard the cor anglais solo at the beginning of Act Three played with more meaning as it is here.

Wagner – Tristan Und Isolde [2007] Nina Stemme’s Isolde is a noble, proud and tragic figure, and her voice has security and power, but it is not a musically affecting performance. In Isolde’s Act One narration, the line “Er sah mir in die Augen” (He gazed into my eyes), one of the most moving passages in all Wagner, is missing inner emotion. Her interpretation of the ‘Liebestod’ is solid but emphasises neither the sensuous beauty nor overwhelming passion of the music. As for Robert Gambill, his Tristan is a rather subdued hero and he lacks the vocal bloom ideally required for the role. However, his performance becomes more convincing as the work progress, and in Act Three he overcomes Bĕlohlávek’s cautious conducting to inject real passion and pain into Tristan’s delirium.

As Brangäne, Katarina Karnéus lacks tenderness in Act One, but Act Two finds her singing with enormous eloquence in the ‘Watch Song’. Bo Skovhus is convincing as a naively loyal Kurwenal. René Pape has made something of a specialty of King Marke and sings with commitment, although I think his interpretation is more moving on Pappano’s 2005 EMI (CD) recording and Levine’s 1999 Metropolitan Opera DVD set on DG.

Wagner – Tristan Und Isolde [2007] Among other rival DVD versions, Barenboim’s 1983 performance, recorded at Bayreuth without an audience, is very compelling. The production is rather artificial and the picture quality is grainy, but Barenboim’s conducting brings excitement and intensity to the score and his Isolde, Johanna Meier, is outstanding. The performance suffers from a rather underwhelming ‘Liebestod’, but this Bayreuth version brings one much closer to the heart of Wagner’s music than the Glyndebourne production.

The Opus Arts DVD benefits from a clear, wide-screen presentation and a mixture of middle-distance and close-up cameras from television director Thomas Grimm. The orchestra is immediately recorded but has good balance and a sense of space. However, the singers are placed very centrally in the stereo spread, which sounds rather odd, as does the left-channel placement of the hunting horns at the start of Act Two. There is also a surround-sound DTS option, although it adds little to the stereo version.

Opus Arts have provided two significant extras. The first is a film entitled “Do I hear the light?”, which features interviews with Lehnhoff, Bĕlohlávek and the principle singers interspersed with extracts from the performance. The second, “Trimborn on Tristan” is a fascinating technical exploration of the music and text by voice-coach and musicologist Richard Trimborn.

Christian Hoskins

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Opus Arte
Opus Arte
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 8.8 Mbit/s, 14.7 GByte, 5.0 ch (MPEG-4)
From the Glyndebourne festival